Years ago, in a diocese far, far away, a colleague surprised me one day by saying how much he disliked the reading of the Passion Gospel on Palm Sunday, particularly when members of the congregation were assigned the various dramatic parts (in precisely the way that over the past forty years or so has become fairly common in churches of all sorts). What he found objectionable was the role assigned to the congregation, the part of the crowd, calling out “Crucify him, crucify him!” in the midst of the solemn liturgy of the day. He was scandalized by the suggestion that his congregation, good Christian people, might be identified with Jesus’ killers.
Just telling this story reminds me of the joys of theological conversation at a certain age, of the thrust and parry over great ideas that can take place in an informal setting. My sense is that theology is often best done in such a setting. I have the sense that much of this give and take happens on social media these days, but that’s another story.
At first I believed my friend was just kidding, or perhaps being provocative, and maybe that was the case. I certainly hope so. At the time I was dumbstruck. The idea of such an identification seemed a commonplace of theological discourse to me. Of course, I thought, we identify with the crowd, complicit in the death of the Savior, just as surely as we identify with the folks who welcomed him on Palm Sunday. As I struggled for a proof text to confute my friend the words of Johann Heermann’s hymn suddenly came to mind and seemed conclusive:
Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
’Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
Years later, it still seems to me that the New Testament statement that “Jesus died for our sins” is, if not the same idea, still in the same conceptual world as the notion that we and our own sins contribute to the crucifixion. Our role as sinners in Jesus’ death is a theme with deep roots in Christian theology and piety. The modern custom of the narrated Passion Gospel is just the latest witness to an ancient and honorable identification.
Indulge me in recounting an even earlier conversation with another colleague, one who opposed the “innovation” of the Easter Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday. For this priest, the integrity of Holy Week required that modern worshippers experience what the first disciples experienced: we needed to walk with them through the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, experiencing the loss of Christ as they did in all its fullness. Holy Saturday, my friend reasoned, ought not to be skipped over. We too need to come to the tomb early on Easter Day and experience the shock of discovering that it is empty, and that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.
Of course, the argument made by my colleague against the Easter Vigil was not and is not conclusive. The Vigil can and has been held anywhere from sundown to shortly before sunup without infringing on the dignity of Holy Saturday. Nothing in the celebration of the Easter Vigil precludes a worshiper from identifying with the disciples.
I’ve not brought the two stories together in my mind before, but it does seem that there is a thread of connection. Both stories take for granted the role of identification on the part of the participant in the liturgy. The worshiper identifies with the folks playing roles in the story of the Passion: with the crowd, with the disciples, with the women at the tomb, and so forth. Different identifications, to be sure, but all examples of the same sort of thing. In one case the suggestion of identification was offensive to the one perceiving it, but the notion of identification is a given.
There is good sense here. Identification is part of what the sacred liturgy works within us; it is a performance that involves us as the players. Liturgy closes the distance between our own time and the events of salvation history, and our identification with those events is an essential part of how this takes place. When Jesus invites his followers to take up their cross and follow him, he’s speaking not just to his followers but to each and every member of the Church in every time and place.
Having said this, I think that both stories I’ve told are just slightly askew in the assumptions they make. A liturgical scheme that suggests that our primary identification during Holy Week is with Jesus’ executioners or with Jesus’ followers or with someone else is missing the point. The primary identification we are supposed to be making is with Jesus himself.
This is the meaning of the paschal mystery for us: our entrance into the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. When Jesus invites his followers to take up their cross, he’s inviting them to share in his way of life. This requires our identification with him, to the extent that his identity becomes our own. “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19-20). The Pauline notion of being “in Christ,” repeated over and over again in his letters, is a notion of identity in which the Church is corporately involved. You and I and others are members of the same body whose head is Christ, and we identify with him.
During Holy Week, this mystery is celebrated sacramentally. As the prayer puts it, we are “very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son” through our sacramental incorporation in him, that is, through baptism and Eucharist. It is only by identifying with him, by standing “in Christ,” that the Church is able to celebrate the sacraments.
“Recalling his death, resurrection and ascension, we offer you these gifts.” This simple sentence, the distillation of earlier Prayer Book formulations, is a formidable statement of Eucharistic theology, and assumes the corporate identity of the worshipper with Christ. The only way in which we can offer is through his offering of himself.
This Holy Week is our chance to walk in the way of the cross. There are many who are walking with us, and many who have walked this path before. The story is complex and multi-faceted, and is hard to reduce to one theme or notion. But the primary identification is clear: the believer with Christ, the Body with the Head.